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Fewer racehorses dying at New York tracks but state equine official still ‘not happy’

FARMINGTON – The horses had entered the starting gate for the second race of the day when something spooked Katmai Unleashed, a 6-year-old gelding in the first stall. The rider on Zosogood, in the No. 2 position, backed his horse out. But in the third stall, Buddy Jones peeled off his jockey and, riderless, bolted the wrong way down the Finger Lakes race track.

Now all eyes were on Katmai Unleashed, splayed on the ground and trapped under the steel partition between the first and second stalls of the gate. The gate crew was trying everything, including pulling on the horse’s tail, to try to move him, but he barely budged beyond his kicks.

And then the thrashing legs stopped. The stands went quiet.

Anxious moments passed and the crew kept working on the horse until, somehow, Katmai Unleashed shifted enough to squirm back to his feet and stood, shaken and wobbly but apparently OK. Spectators applauded as the horse was led off the track.

That was in September. Katmai wouldn’t race again the rest of the season, but he did win in one sense: He was not among the 34 horses that died at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack in 2014.

The general public doesn’t hear much about horse racing deaths unless the horse is a star, like Barbaro, who broke an ankle in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. Despite the best veterinary care, the Kentucky Derby winner was euthanized eight months later.

The world also was watching when the filly Eight Belles shattered her front ankles and was euthanized on the track moments after finishing second in the 2008 Derby.

When celebrity horses running in high stakes races still risk dying in front of national audiences, it puts into perspective the challenge of protecting low-budget animals like Pete, a 3-year-old who broke down while training at Finger Lakes in November and was euthanized.

“In the last five weeks of his young life, Pete was raced four times under three different trainer/owner teams. Just another cheap movable asset broken and killed,” according to Horseracing Wrongs, a blog by animal rights advocate Patrick J. Battuello of Albany.

Since 2009, 286 racehorses have died at Finger Lakes, the highest number of any track in the state. The higher number isn’t surprising, given the length of Finger Lakes racing season: 162 days in 2014. The state’s other three thoroughbred tracks – at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga – had a total of 252 racing days among them.

Based on the number of starts at the tracks, Finger Lakes had the lowest rate of deaths, 2.22 per 1,000 starts, compared with 4.74 per 1,000 at Belmont and 3.25 at all New York State tracks.

The equine deaths include those that died while racing and training, as well as those stabled at the track that suffered cardiac arrest, colic or other conditions that killed them or led to euthanasia.

Some in racing consider it the cost of doing business. Others do not.

The alarming number of horses that died in late 2011 and early 2012 at Aqueduct drew the attention of the wider racing industry, the media and the Governor’s Office. Thirty horses died or were euthanized during that winter, one of the deadliest stretches of recent New York horse racing history.

After the New York Times published a story about the racetrack deaths, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed a task force to investigate what was wrong with racing and to find ways to fix it.

Three years later, New York’s 11 thoroughbred and harness tracks are reporting fewer horse deaths. Across the state, 126 racehorses died last year, 40 percent fewer than in 2010.

Veterinarian Scott Palmer, a task force member who became New York’s first equine medical director more than a year ago, points out the progress but still considers the current numbers too high.

He said that racetrack culture fueled the conditions for more thoroughbred deaths.

“The (current) problems were created by a lot of people having a very low level of risk aversion,” Palmer said, with the risk being borne by the horses in their care.

“A whole bunch of things combined to make this problem: claiming race problems, people looking the other way, lax oversight,” Palmer said. “We are now building a culture of safety and instituting more internal controls. There never were any before.”

The bigger picture

The Buffalo News analyzed the New York State Gaming Commission’s database of racehorse breakdowns, deaths, injuries and incidents and found that, among the more than 900 horses that died from 2009 to 2014:

• Two of every three were euthanized after suffering a leg fracture.

• About half died from injuries sustained while racing; one in four died from training injuries. The remainder died from nonracing causes, such as colic or heart attack.

• With more tracks open in warmer months, August has become the deadliest month for racing in New York.

• Nine of every 10 racehorse deaths occurred at thoroughbred tracks, with harness tracks like Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs accounting for a small portion. The Standardbred stock in harness races tends to be sturdier, and the horses race at a trot or pace, gaits that put far less stress on the animal’s legs than the full-out gallops of thoroughbred racing.

But harness tracks are not immune to spills and accidents.

Make a Friend took a bad step during the eighth race at Buffalo Raceway on April 17 and walked off the track. An exam revealed a fractured left rear leg, and the horse was euthanized.

But it was all the thoroughbred deaths a couple of years ago sparked the outcry.

“I’m not happy with the fatalities we have right now,” Palmer said. “We care about these horses, we are aware of these problems, and we are spending an enormous amount of money to minimize these risks.”

Twelve horses died in 22 days of January racing this year at Aqueduct. The New York Racing Association responded by cutting the number of weekly races from nine to eight, and horses were not allowed to race more than once every 14 days. The association also announced it would keep a list of troubled horses who lost by 25 lengths or more and not allow them to race until they showed improvement.

The goal of the changes is to make racing safer and cleaner, not to end it. The economics of the business are significant.

Horse racing, breeding, horse shows and recreational ownership result in an economic impact of nearly $4.2 billion in New York State, according to a study commissioned by the New York Horse Racing and Agricultural Alliance in 2012. It reported that 33,000 full-time jobs were connected to the horse industry.

Extra scrutiny

Racetrack operators say they welcome the state’s increased scrutiny and enforcement.

“We’re seeing a higher focus on safety from all directions, and when you have that, you’re going to have more positive results,” said Steve Martin, senior director of marketing at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack. “Everybody has a much higher awareness throughout the industry now.”

Among the 34 horse deaths at the Finger Lakes track last year, 14 died of racing injuries.

Before the racehorse deaths in 2012 turned a spotlight on practices at tracks across the state, almost double the number of horses died each year at Finger Lakes – 63 in 2010 and 62 in 2011. The track’s harshest critics called it Finger Lakes Deathtrack.

“We’ve always been extremely cognizant of fatalities,” Martin said. “We’d like to not have any, but we want to see improvement.”

He said that, as a small track, Finger Lakes deals with lower-priced horses and tighter budgets, so it appreciates the state’s increased vigilance.

“It brings in all the pieces of the puzzle – owners, trainers, jockeys, track managers,” he said. “There are a lot of good people out there with the horses.”

The New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety report in September 2012 cited no single cause for the spike in fatalities at Aqueduct earlier that year, but it pointed to a combination of factors that led to the rash of horse deaths there and growing numbers elsewhere.

“We found multiple factors that created a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that caused these tragic breakdowns,” Palmer said at the time.

Racino money

Palmer told The News part of the problem could be traced to the establishment of state-run racinos – horse tracks with video lottery machines, such as those at Finger Lakes, Hamburg, Batavia – that funnel money from the race track-based gambling halls to the racing purses (the money given to the winning horse). This caused an imbalance in the price of horses in claiming races, especially at smaller tracks.

The high purses in claiming races proved to be dangerous for underperforming horses. The chance for a big win encouraged some owners and trainers to run horses that weren’t fit to step on the track – with the animals often bolstered by painkillers that masked injuries.

And the structure of claiming races at the time provided a way for some owners to unload previously successful horses that were no longer sound.

“When a horse was entered, you’re basically putting him up for sale for the claiming price,” Palmer explained. “Historically, people put in a claim before the race and as soon as the gate opens, the claimer owns the horse, and the previous owner gets the money.

“The goal of the trainers was simply to get the horse into the gate.”

That is no longer the case. The task force described the deadly Aqueduct meet in 2012 as “a period of extraordinary claiming activity with elevated purses disproportionate to [up to five times greater than] the value of the horses.”

Not coincidentally, 18 of the 21 fatalities occurred during lopsided claiming races, with horses suffering broken bones that led to their deaths.

“We felt it was a process that was not in the best interest of the horse’s welfare,” Palmer said of the races.

The state quickly adopted an emergency rule to limit claiming race purses to no more than twice the value of the horse – a rule later made permanent.

Teresa Genaro, writing for the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary website, found that deaths in claiming races dropped following the rule changes, from 56 percent of the fatalities in 2013 to 28 percent through November 2014.

Culture change

But with the overall number of fatalities at state tracks essentially unchanged from 2013 to 2014, no one is claiming victory yet.

Palmer likens the process to turning a battleship, as track managers and state regulators try to change traditions and longtime practices while focusing on deliberate violators and overt abuses.

So far, changes have been directed at risk factors highlighted by the task force report on the 21 horses that died at the infamous Aqueduct meet: the claiming races, the track conditions, how often the horses that died had raced.

Another deadly start this winter led to more changes. Seventeen horses died at Aqueduct in December and January. The 7.9 deaths per 1,000 starts surpasses the national rate, which has remained between 1.88 and 2.0 since 2009, according to the Jockey Club.

In response to the death count at Aqueduct, the NYRA announced more controls in January for the track.

The NYRA will keep a “poor performance” list of horses that lose by a margin of 25 lengths or greater. Before the horse can race again, it must complete a half-mile workout in 53 seconds or less.

The number of races on weekends was cut, and horses could not race more than once in any 14-day period.

The NYRA already had schedule two breaks in the winter meet to assure horses were given rest time and implemented stricter workout requirements.

Palmer also has ordered necropsies for all equine fatalities taking place at Aqueduct.

Palmer says it is time to take a harder look at the human causes of equine injuries.

“From my perspective, we need to pay attention to the number of injuries per stable compared with the number of horses there,” Palmer said.

In 2014, eight horses died in August at Saratoga Race Track, one of the state’s premier tracks, triggering its inquiry into track safety, doping and undiagnosed medical conditions.

Palmer says one focus must be on the sudden cardiac arrest, second only to fractures for on-track equine deaths.

“These are basically untreatable,” Palmer said. “There have been a number of them, and with the necropsy findings, in 20 to 40 percent of cases they have no idea, or no certain idea, what caused the event. We tested every one of those horses (for drugs), and there were no positive results.”

With Dr. Katie Kelly, a veterinary cardiologist at Cornell University, they are studying cardiac enzymes associated with heart muscle damage and looking for ways to detect cardiac arrhythmias on the track at the time of a horse collapse.

Palmer emphasized that there is no quick fix for reducing and preventing racing deaths.

“Zero is probably not a realistic goal. This is going to take time,” he said. “We are talking about changing a culture, a very traditional culture. It is an uphill fight, but we are turning the battleship.”

email: mmiller@buffnews.com